Hamlin’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)/Prisoner of War (POW) site is one of only 377 WWII Prisoner of War Branch Camp sites in the US and is the second largest German POW camp in Western NY. One of the top ten historical sites of its kind in the country, the campsite is on part of Hamlin Beach State Park, located East of the Southern park entrance behind an old farmhouse.
Ed Evans, his wife, Sue, and volunteers from Hamlin and the surrounding area have worked tirelessly since June 2008 to clear the jungle-like brush from the old camp on Moscow Road. Ed said they waded through shark’s teeth to uncover the original flagpole foundation.
Evans, a retired Hilton Physics, Chemistry, and Earth Science teacher gave a presentation and tour at the camp on March 9th. In attendance that day were special guests from Germany, Matthias Heinicke and his travel buddy, Robert Henze. Matthias is grandson of Heinrich Heinicke, a German prisoner in the Hamlin POW camp.
In early 1944, the camp was modified to accommodate German prisoners of war. They erected an eight-foot-high barbed wire fence around most of the camp with guard towers. A sturdy double gate controlled supply truck traffic into and out of the POW compound. Double bunks replaced CCC cots so the five barracks could hold 400 POWs.
When relatives of POW prisoners visit the camp, it brings memories back to life. Heinrich and Matthias came here in 2008, giving Heinrich the opportunity to relive and share some of his WWII experiences with his grandson. Matthias shared memories at this March presentation.
Heinrich and Gottfried Schulze both worked at Duffy Mott’s canning factory in Hamlin. They lived in the same Hamlin CCC/POW camp barracks at the same time. Heinrich said he had the best bunk in the camp, because Barracks #3 was closest to the latrine. Heinrich ran the camp shop where Gottfried bought a wallet Ed then passed around during the presentation.
During the war, there was no one to work in the fields and farmers were going bankrupt. German POWs saved the day by working in their fields. The healing process of WWII happened in the tomato fields. Locals invited POWs for dinner, lemonade, and strawberry shortcake.
Matthias shared the German perspective after Evans’ presentation: In June 1944, his Opa (grandfather) came to the Hamlin area with other soldiers. They learned to live in a country 4,000 miles away from their home. They didn’t know when they would return to Germany and did not know how their relatives in Germany were doing. The war was still going on and it was a time of uncertainty.
The American hosts provided work and allowed them to have fun too. They learned the friendliness and open minds of Americans here despite the America/Germany conflict. They experienced fair treatment here. Not everywhere followed the Geneva Convention.
Heinrich was grateful for his time here. In Easter 1945, he was homesick when working close to Niagara Falls. When he heard the bells of Canada ring over the river at 10am, it reminded him of going to church at that time every Easter in his little German village.
Matthias Heinicke said, “After eight decades, they are bringing the remains of the camp back to daylight and reporting about it for younger generations to find out what happened here. It helps teach that enemies can become respected fellow humans. Working together can benefit everyone, while fighting each other in a war leads to losses and misery. We have had peace for over 70 years, but today’s world is in conflict again.”
Heinicke said, “Ed and Sue opened up their home to us, just as the Hamlin people opened their minds for the POW people in World War II. I am thankful to get to know Ed and his work and all who are involved. I hope to live in a world where the need for Ed’s work would not exist in the first place. If there wasn’t a war, there wouldn’t have been a POW camp. I hope we can live in a world where this will never be necessary again. Robert and I traveled a long way to get here. If our presence today can contribute to holding up the gratitude of my grandfather and the peacekeeping mindset, then the effort of coming here was worth every mile of the way.”